How I Draw pencil portraits in a fresh & direct style

Drawing a child's portrait from life.  This is my approach:


For many years I created pencil portraits at public events, demonstrating portrait drawing from direct observation. I prefer to draw with a particular type of carbon pencil which allows me to draw quite quickly giving a positive line as well as a variety of more subtle marks.

Whenever someone sits in front of me to have their portrait drawn, something about their appearance will strike me as distinctive. This is of key importance. It might be something physical like a broad, open face, or slightly large ears or a crooked smile. It might be very obvious or it could be something extremely subtle. It could be an expression in their face or something in their demeanour. It might be a combination of things. Whatever it is, it is important to make a brief mental note, and then to the make the most of the essential characteristic(s) through the course of the drawing.  I am after truth; I resist any tendency to normalise or idealise.    

All my decisions including the angle of view should be determined by my response to the subject. However, the child will usually present a straight-on, full face view. Whilst the three-quarters view is often useful for describing facial structure, the straight-on view has practical advantages if faced with a reluctant sitter. If, for instance, a very young child decides they have simply had enough and even starts crying half way through the process - if you have established half the face, or at least a good deal of it - you could have enough information to finish the rest, after a fashion. You can only really do this with a full face view. It certainly isn’t ideal, but it is an answer.

In normal circumstances I tell the child that I do not need them to smile all the time; it would soon become painful for them. I only ask for a smile when I need it. I try and draw quickly, for the sake of the child. My drawings are basically linear and shape-conscious. I introduce areas of tone in these portraits only to suggest form quickly and to represent dark hair or eyes for instance, and texture in certain sections of the drawing.

One of the first things I do is consider the shape of the hair/head and how it occupies the page. Some children typically have their head  tipped & this could be a key to their character. An angled central line to indicate the tipped face might be a useful start with another line at right angles for the line of the eyes.  As a note of interest, the shoulders often counterbalance the tipping of the head. Establishing these basic angles correctly is important.

Think in terms of shape. Try to establish the shape of the head and hair relative to the centre line and eye line already drawn. The drawing has to have some flexibility in it at this stage so I only make marks that can be erased easily. They might have to be repositioned if the child moves. Make some comparisons between width and height. Establish the depth of the fringe, perhaps using this as a unit of measure to determine other proportions. Only make decisions that relate to other decisions; don’t make assumptions about the position of lines. That is the way you need to be looking at this stage. Look for the rhythms and flows in the face. Allow yourself to be open and surprised at what you find in terms of proportions.


It is always surprising how large a child’s skull is in comparison to the face. See the 3 photos - where surprisingly, the eyes appear lower than half way down the total length of the head.  (Drawing adults is a different matter.)
This is the case when viewing the child at their own level. 


While still at the initial stages, I try and position the ears thinking in terms of the angle at which they sit. Not only is the angle of the ears key to achieving something of the character of the child it also helps describe the widening part of the head. This is satisfying to get right as the head starts to acquire solidity.

Having established some proportions, I change my approach. I sharpen my pencil and home in tightly on the eye area. The eye area is the focus of the portrait and warrants the closest treatment. Locate the eyebrows precisely by relating them to the eye line and the hair shape. Look at the shape of the eyebrows and, if curved, what kind of curve? Think in terms of the form and solidity of the head as you draw the brows. Some eyebrows are dark and individual tiny hairs can be seen. With a sharp pencil concentrate on the direction and the flow of these tiny hairs. Be precise and fast; do not labour it. Many children have very fair eyebrows, often so faint that only the lightest smudge is needed. Be true to what you see and consider how the two eyebrows relate to each other and the rest of the face.


Now, to the eyes. This is the approach that works for me in this kind of portrait. I often ask the child to look at me, or at a fixed point for a few minutes. Again, it is all about seeing shape precisely. Each persons’ eyes have their own distinct shape, so it is crucial to see and draw these shapes precisely. Drawing the eyes is all about seeing the individuality of the shape. Use a good, sharp pencil for precision. Describe the fine creases that flow round the eyes and define the shape of the lids.


Again, this is just my approach to this type of portrait. Locate and draw the iris. Make sure it is a distinct circle, albeit the upper and often lower parts are hidden under the lids. Some pale eyed children have a dark ring around the outer edge of the iris. This is particularly satisfying to draw as it reinforces the circle of the iris.

Draw the second eye relating it to the first in every respect, obviously. Consider how the two eyes relate to each other in terms of overall shape, and how big is the gap between the eyes. “Is it a big gap or a small gap?” This is a question I frequently ask myself throughout the course of a drawing. “How big, how small; big gap, little gap?”


The catch-light is not a ‘must’ - far from it. However, it is expected in this type of portrait. It is a chip of pure white light, or paper, left showing in the eye. I locate it close to the black of the pupil so that the contrast is intensified. Draw the catch-light in the same position in both irises. When shading the iris use marks appropriate to the eye as it appears. Sometimes radiating lines are appropriate; sometimes the merest smudge is enough for particularly pale eyes; or heavy shading for liquid brown eyes, but I would never shade in solidly, because some light and life needs to come from the eye. I think I rarely shade anything in flatly.

Typically, there is a muscle under the eye that tightens when the child smiles, so I will always ask the child for a brief smile. To indicate this muscle I place a brief curve, a mere mark, just below the eye. Be careful, because if drawn too clumsily it can simply make the child look tired. Locate it carefully and make sure it is always the product of observation, because, of course, every child is different even in the seemingly insignificant details.

Now, working downwards... I have, in my experience, noticed that noses are often longer than one imagines. Even little button noses. Assess the length by comparison with a known unit of measure and plot the position of the end of the nose. Believe your measurements. Once you are happy with the positioning, make a mark that can be developed into a carefully observed nose-shape. Think in terms of its shape as you observe it, and its three dimensional form. Draw round the shapes. Sense the form.

Freckles can be a wonderful opportunity. When drawn sensitively they help describe the form of the face. Work across the face, up and over the hill of the nose, across and round the far cheek. They might be very faint or they might be distinct. A problem can arise when the child has a face full of freckles and trying to reproduce them exactly as they appear won't look right. Therefore I concentrate the freckles in the familiar freckle passage; the ‘mask’ across the nose and cheeks and only suggest them very sparsely on the rest of the face. Studs in the form of facial piercings can be a problem - in a drawing they can look like big spots.

Working downwards... between the nose and the top lip is the shallow furrow of the philtrum, a seemingly unimportant part of the face. Sometimes long, sometimes short, the length of it is of real importance in the face. Many caricaturists have taken it to extremes, exploiting its expressive properties for comical effect. The length of the philtrum also influences the overall length of the face significantly, so it is important to judge it precisely. “Is it a big gap, is it a small gap?” Obviously a smile changes it to some extent and this has to be taken into account.


The parents will of course want the child to be smiling. Most, but not all, children smile with their top teeth showing. Others will smile keeping their mouth stubbornly shut. Perhaps this is self-consciousness. I ask that they smile only for the time I need it and then work quickly. I draw the curve of the smile based upon observation and looking for anything unusual. I then concentrate on the overall shape of the teeth. I use only the lightest indication where the teeth divide - getting the overall shape of the teeth is far more important than drawing every tooth. Usually only the softest line is needed to outline the lips.

It is preferable to understate the smile lines. So often they are overstated. Not only does this age the child - more importantly - it breaks down the form. Similarly, dimples need to be positioned carefully and indicated only lightly.

Working downwards, the chin forms part of the face shape.  At the same time I would run my eyes around the general face shape and establish it as narrow, broad, round, triangular, square, or permutations of these. Establishing the face shape is such an important consideration and getting it right is perhaps the hardest and most satisfying aspect of the portrait.

I look again at the overall shape of the head and develop the drawing of the hair. Whether the hair is long and lustrous or short and scratty, the same applies - the key consideration is to make sure that the lines describing the hair help describe the form of the head itself. It is easy to follow a piece of curling hair and find that it appears to break down the form beneath. So be selective. That way the head looks good and solid.

Working downwards, the neck is so small on a very young child that it hardly shows at all. So look carefully at where the line of the shoulders appears to meet the head. I find that children often have to be asked to relax their shoulders after sitting for a while and possibly feeling a little self-conscious and tense. Babies’ and toddlers’ shoulders are quiet narrow. On the other hand, when drawing older children the shoulders are often too big for the sheet of paper and the artist must be wary of unwittingly reducing the width of the shoulders to fit the paper. So keep comparing widths with vertical measurements. Continually run your eye around the whole drawing.Do not be embarrassed about stretching out an arm to compare proportions with thumb and pencil.

When drawing the clothes follow the folds, creases and patterns that help describe the form beneath. This part of the drawing is not a focal part so keep the drawing fairly loose, avoiding detail, so that the eye does not settle there.

I can cope with the child moving, to a certain extent. If distracted, they tend to return to the same pose before too long. There are some people, however,  who I just know are going to present a problem - head tippers. They appear to unknowingly tip their head to one side. The artist needs to draw them as they appear, of course - which is great, interesting. But I know from experience that after five minutes or so, they will shift their weight a little, and suddenly their head will settle - tipped to the other side! It s a major change and yet the sitter seems to be totally unaware.  My process of drawing involves ‘pulling’ the shapes I see down onto the paper in front of me which is lined up straight in front of the subject - pure observation. So this dramatic shift in position can be a major obstacle. If I am five or ten minutes into a 25-minute drawing then there really is not enough time to totally change the drawing. And anyway, who knows whether they will tip their head back to the original position again in five minutes’ time? In this case I have to ask them to return to their original pose.

As stressed above, I believe in lining up my drawing board and paper to face the subject directly.  I need to view my paper as clearly and as straight-on as possible – so I need an incline, but resting my A3 drawing board on my lap gives too shallow a gradient.  So my clever husband has created a lap easel for me. Leaning the drawing board against something static like a piece of furniture can work - but if the subject, the child or dog moves I like to be able to follow them around even if the movement is only fractional and the lap easel allows me to do that freely.  He has designed it to mould around my legs to some extent so it doesn’t slip. It involves a cylindrical cushion on which the drawing board can be angled to various inclines as required.  The board can accommodate landscape as well as portrait.  It has a gutter to keep pencils etc. handy.  The gutter is transparent so that I can see what’s in it, but above all, my lap easel is comfortable. I might call it a Point & Draw Lap Easel; I believe this aspect of it encourages good practise.  My students have taken to it – tables are such an encumbrance and boards lent against a table can slip & slide at crooked angles, and donkeys are used very little nowadays. It seems that concentrated observational drawing is given short shift  in colleges etc. 

The value of drawing from observation (as opposed to tracing from photos etc.) is that it enables us to learn about the visual world. We learn about shape, pattern, rhythm, structure - indeed design - for want of a better word, in a way that no other means can deliver.  So, if we consider ourselves visual artists, in any sense - whether we intend to specialise in other media or paint from the imagination - we need to make plenty of drawings from observation.

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